Thank you to Danielle Jones-Pruett for today's post about getting published in literary journals. She shares both her experience and suggestions from editors.
Danielle Jones-Pruett is a poet living in Salem, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bateau Press, Cider Press Review, DMQ Review, Verse Daily, and others. She has edited for numerous small presses, most recently Breakwater Review and ROAR. Danielle curated the Poetry Dress project, and is Common Threads coordinator for Mass Poetry.
Editors Talking Back: How To Make Lit Journals Love You
Every time I’ve worked for a journal, I’ve been part of a tiny, all-volunteer staff (usually 1-2 editors), and we’ve had about a month to read 300-700 poems. Larger, more-established journals have more readers to divvy up work, but they also get more submissions—often thousands in a single reading period. I recently read that one big-name journal gets 20,000 poems a year! So, the first step to getting your poem published is getting it noticed. To this end, I gathered up some of my editor friends (who are also writers) to see what advice they have for those of us living in the Submittable world.
Standing Out In a Crowd
I try to take breaks when I’m reading—I know when I’m getting too tired and cranky to be fair—but even when I’m fresh, poems tend to blend into one another pretty quickly. That’s why I’m always looking for the poem that surprises me; the one that offers me an adventure I wasn’t expecting, whether it’s the subject matter that’s inventive, or a familiar topic treated in a way I didn’t see coming. If your mom, and his mom, and her mom are all competing for my attention, the most authentic details are going win. The details I don’t question; the ones so vivid I can’t help being an active participant, putting me in your skin, feeling the press of mom’s palm as she rubs the aloe vera into the itch of my sunburn.
First Impressions Are Everything
Amy Marengo (Poetry Editor, Minnesota Review/The New River) tells me she believes in love at first sight. “I usually know if I'm interested in a poem after reading the first line or two. I still read an entire poem that doesn't grab me right away, but poems that start strong pass to the next round more often.” Lisa Duffy (Founding Editor, ROAR) echoes that sentiment: “[we] look for submissions that draw us in from the beginning. As editors, once we’re invested in a story, we're much more willing to work with a writer to make the story meet its highest potential. We go back to writers all the time if something isn't working in the middle, or if the ending needs work.”
We Want To Watch You Walk Out of the Room
Carissa Halston (Co-founding Editor, apt) wants you to finish strong. She says “Very often, the most promising submissions we're forced to decline for publication have to do with endings. Poems or stories or essays that have great diction and imagery and pacing, and either no ending or something lackluster or rote. As a writer who agonizes over endings, I can't stress their importance enough. Make the ending count, make it the logical progression that the rest of your piece careens or saunters or crawls toward. Because it's the one thing that could ruin an otherwise solid work.”
Don’t Rush Things
Randolph Pfaff (Co-founding Editor, apt) encourages you to take your time.
“As an editor and poet, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of letting your poems rest after you've written a draft. Revise, wait, read (on the page and aloud), repeat. Revise until the weakest lines have grown and can stand beside the strongest as equals. Revise until there's not a word you doubt. Revise until you're honestly satisfied with what you've written. Then, send that poem out into the world, confident that it will find the readers who need it most.”
Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover
Once you’re sure you’re ready, just how important is that cover letter you’re fretting over?
Amy says she reads the cover letter after the poems. “Sometimes a cover letter is so annoying (the poet tries too hard to be quirky/funny) it taints my opinion of good poems. Sometimes a cover letter mentions publications in journals I admire or awards I dream of winning, and I'm convinced that the batch of mediocre poems is better than it really is.” As for me, if there’s a poem I’m not sure about, I’m more likely to look at the entire submission for help than the cover letter. I’m less interested in where poets have been than in where they’re going. If I’m on the fence about one poem, and look over the manuscript to find all the poems are relatively strong, I’m more likely to take it.
Playing the Field
Sometimes we’re so eager to get into a particular journal, we don’t pay attention to whether it’s really the right place for our work. Wesley Rothman (Editor, Ploughshares/Salamander/Copper Canyon) points out “As a poet submitting poems, I noticed myself getting a little apprehensive to send my stronger pieces out into the world, thinking I want to "place" them—I want a particular poem to be in a particular journal. But ever since I noticed this apprehension, especially with the aid of my editorial glasses, I've realized that I should only submit my work to journals I really love, and then being accepted anywhere I submit is a truly special experience. I think it's easy to "just want to be published" and to then carpet bomb every journal in existence, but having been a reader and an editor, I better understand and appreciate aesthetics and the process of selection. And as a poet this has taught me to slow down a little, focus my energies, and work smartly.”
I’ve personally been paying attention to journals that submit to Best New Poets or nominate for Pushcart; that send their journal to Verse Daily or New Pages. Or who run a reading series, like apt. This might sound self-serving, and I guess in some ways it is, but it’s also because I have respect for editors who go the extra mile to get their writers’ work out in the world.
Forget Flings, Think Long-Term Commitment
When I publish poems I love, I become interested in what those writers are up to: I look for their poems in other journals, go to their readings, or buy their books. However, I’ve noticed that as a writer I seldom keep communication with editors, or send to the same journals twice. I’ve recently decided that’s a mistake. If you find a journal you love, if you work with editors who are champions of your work, keep sending them the best you’ve got, year after year. I’m sure the relationship will mean much more than a couple of extra names in your bio.
Don’t Take Us For Granted
Most of us work as volunteers. As in, not for money. And lots of other obligations and jobs to read around. And almost all of us are writers, which means we’re reading your latest poem or story instead of writing our own. We do it because we love it—we really love it— but sometimes it’s a tough and thankless job. So, if you’re pleased with our work, send us a thank you note. Even more importantly, share word of your publication widely and tell your friends they should submit to us. Give us a chance to one day become the journal with a long list of editors under the masthead.